Loveliness

Other people’s words about … a changing world

When I first arrived [in Rome] I cried almost every day for a month. Over nothing; over the state of the world; the news I saw on television; over the loveliness of the autumn sunshine on soft old stone. Great, wrenching sobs that came and went in moments and left me dazed.

From ‘In My Skin’
by Kate Holden

I’m writing this post on the day before Easter, 9 April 2020, a day in which, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the number of people who have contracted the coronavirus globally has reached 1,504,971. Of those, 87,984 people have died, and 318,068 people have recovered. Meanwhile, here in Australia, where the virus has barely (yet) made a dent, we are being encouraged to stay at home for the Easter break, instead of going away as so many of us usually do.

Stay home, we are being told. Stay well. Stop the spread.

Lunchtime view: On the pontoon (1)

It’s impossible to say how many Australians will obey these directives. Impossible to say, if we don’t, how many cases of coronavirus there will be here in two weeks’ time. Impossible to say, therefore, what the world, our world, will look like in two weeks’ time.

And what of the aftermath? When this crisis is over — when the COVID-19 pandemic has run its course, as we are being told it will — what will our world look like then? Will our lives simply resume where they left off? Or will the way we live, the world we walk through, be changed forever?

Impossible to say.

*

In her memoir In My Skin, Kate Holden tells the story of her addiction to heroin: how she became addicted, what it was like, how she moved on. For her, the process of getting clean involved as much loss and grief as it did relief and joy: the world around her seemed strange, and new, and exhausting.

All I did, in the daytime, was walk. On the move until I was too baffled by weariness to feel anything, I wandered, almost every day, through the soft ochre streets, the narrow old spaces, learning the city, studying it. I made myself a scholar again, and sat in the cold sunshine of a city that had withstood destruction and rebirth many times, and let myself be suffused with dreaming. I walked in different weathers and times of day, learning about change and constancy. In quietness, I walked Rome. Sometimes I worked up the courage to venture further.

It’s autumn here in Australia, and the days are filled with the kind of still, gentle, lovely sunshine that Holden describes in the first of the passages I’ve quoted above. Because of COVID-19, I can’t fly to Rome, as she did in the aftermath of her heroin addiction, to wander the old streets and learn the world anew. Nor can you.

But: I made myself a scholar again, Holden writes; and this, I think, is something all of us can do right now, wherever we are in the world. We can watch and walk and study and learn.

Lunchtime view: On the pontoon (2)

The world is changing, and so, inevitably, will we. One day, when this is over, we will venture further again, whatever venturing may mean, whatever further may mean.

In the quietness of this strange, new, exhausting world, here, at least, is something we can do.

Lately I’ve been reading …

That place

Other people’s words about … slowing down

He opened the window and let in the ocean, gulped in that grey air as though oxygen was enough to save him from the people in the house, watched the waves, noted the dark rip forming at the southern end of the beach. He ignored the sound of Charlie’s voice in the lounge, hilarious, oblivious, the sounds of the girl in the bathroom behind him, scrubbing insistently; called to mind the tentacles of the cloud from earlier, saw the colours he’d mix [if he were to paint it], the strokes, the shapes. After a few moments, his breathing slowed and he began to enter the place where no one else could come.

From‘Bluebottle‘
By Belinda Castles

It’s hard to know what to say, let alone what to write about, in times like this. Surely I am not alone in beginning to think of 2020 as the year of disasters — first, here in Australia, the bushfires; then, globally, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Low ebb

About the coronavirus, I have nothing useful to say. It is only just beginning to hit here in Australia, and — despite the chance that Australians had, over the last few weeks, to learn from people’s experiences of it in the northern hemisphere — it appears that we have done very little to protect ourselves. Though we are not yet in lockdown, I suspect we will be soon.

Birds of a feather

Before the coronavirus situation began to escalate here, I was lucky enough to have the chance to slip away for a few days to Kangaroo Island. The photos in this post are from those few days.

Half of the island — yes, half — was destroyed by the bushfires earlier this year. Even without the pandemic, it is a time of great sadness on the Island.

Exposed

But I have nothing to say about that sadness, either. Instead, my photographs here celebrate, I hope, the beauty of the unburned half of the Island. In times of sadness, we have to find things to celebrate, yes?

Enter that place

Also, to borrow Belinda Castles’s words from the quote above and to use them in a different context, we have to slow down, despite our panic; we have to breathe in fresh air. We have to turn inward, finding and enter[ing] that place where no one else [can] come.

In the end, we have to find a way, within ourselves, to survive.

It is what it is

Other people’s words about … looking beautiful

I like to look clean and presentable, but I don’t think about beauty too much. It’s just not in my mind.

Lulu Goddard
‘My Beauty Uniform’
In A Cup of Jo

Though I understand the difference between internal and external beauty, and the importance of the former in contrast to the latter, I think I will always remain fascinated by the way other women look, and, even more, the way other women feel about the way they look. Most of all, I will always be interested in how other women find peace with themselves and their appearance.

So I loved the interview from which I’ve quote above with Lulu Goddard, whose cheerful, no-nonsense attitude to her appearance reflects her cheerful, no-nonsense, humble attitude to life in general. You can find the rest of interview here.

Restorative

Lulu’s a tea-drinker, like me. She drinks several cups a day, and enjoys a slice of cake with her tea. Reading her interview over my own morning pot of tea, I found myself smiling in agreement with much of what she said. There is much to worry about in this world, and my posts recently have touched on this. But it’s good to step back from all of these things, too, just for a few moments each day: to allow yourself to be restored.

Which is, perhaps, just my way of saying: here’s another important way to find peace with yourself and your life.

Metronome

Other people’s words about … feeling wrong

I walked out of the class then, back into the hallway, thinking that this was another thing I didn’t understand: how you can work so hard on a report, you can even earn an A, but you still walk away feeling like you’ve done something wrong.

Like you, yourself, are terribly wrong.

From ‘The Thing about Jellyfish’
by Ali Benjamin

I mentioned in previous posts that I’ve been tired recently, too tired to run very far. And honestly? I still feel that way. I’m still tired, and though, having had a couple of weeks off running altogether when I was sick with a cold, I’ve come back to it, I’m still lacking energy and verve, still lacking that feeling of rightness that I usually associate with running.

At the moment, in fact, I’m running more because I remember the sense of rightness and joy that running gives me than because I actually feel it in the present.

View on the run (1)
Pathway to the horizon

In a funny way, the quote in today’s post encapsulates not only the way I’ve felt all my life — the feeling that I’m wrong; that I get things wrong; that I’ll never, ever get them right — but also the particular feeling that I have right now, when I’m out on the path, running (and stopping, mid-run, to take photographs like the ones in today’s post). The truth is, I feel wrong, right now, when I run. But I keep running, anyway.

View on the run (2)
Three little ducks

Meanwhile, I’ve been getting back to reading novels for younger people again over the last few months, these months of tiredness, after a long time away from them — novels written for young adults, for middle-grade readers, for kids. And I’ve loved every minute of my reading. I’ve been reminded, reading these books, of all the things I used to love about them: the poignancy of the voices of protagonists like thirteen-year-old Suzy in The Thing about Jellyfish, the freshness, the truth. Her words ring true across the generations, at least for me.

I’d turned away from reading books for younger people over the last few years, because I thought that I couldn’t write for that audience anymore, and because I thought I was the wrong reader, the wrong writer.

View on the run (3)
Baby almonds

But maybe that’s the thing: maybe, sometimes, you have to do things, anyway, regardless of how wrong you feel doing it. Maybe the rightness comes from doing it anyway — despite, or because.

View on the run (4)
Two’s company

So I’m out there running these days, both despite and because. And whether the joy is there, whether the feeling of rightness is there, I’ll keep running like this until something stops me, or until the joy and the rightness return.

Because there’s a rhythm to these things, I think: a rhythm to the pounding of my feet on the footpath, a metronome ticking away, the same way that life ticks away.

And that rhythm, that ticking, is the only true, right thing I know.

Chasing clouds

Other people’s words about … running

Some athletes love to talk about what a simple sport running is. They say that all you need is a pair of sneakers. That’s not true. What you need is some freedom of movement and the ability to see a clear path ahead of you. It took me years to see that path and to find my pace. When I finally got moving, I hoped I might be able to run forever.

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

After I wrote my last post here, in which I mentioned that I’d been too tired to run very much recently, I caught a cold and stopped running altogether for almost three weeks. It was probably the longest period I’ve gone without running since I took the habit up again, back in 2015, at the age of forty-five.

This past Thursday, I went for my first run since catching that cold, feeling fragile and wobbly and exhausted. I was so tired that I ran half the distance that I usually run, and I stopped at the midway point — partly to rest, partly just to soak up the wonder of being out under the sky again, with my feet thudding against the ground.

I sat on a rock looking out over the sailboats anchored in the cove, and I thanked whatever grace it is that allows me to continue to run. There are so many people who would like to run but can’t, whether because of disability or illness, injury or lack of opportunity. I remembered that I am one of the lucky ones: that it is my great good fortune and privilege to be able to run, however slow my pace, however short my distance.

I took the photographs in today’s post as I was sitting on those rocks, midway through that run. It was a short, tiring, exhausting, feeble run, and it left me feeling both humbled and blessed.

And that is what I love most about this privileged pursuit of mine: the gratitude it feels me with. The joy that it brings.

Savour it

Other people’s words about … moments of beauty

Her head nested in spindly weeds [as she lay down in the grass]; the sky glowed preternaturally blue through the slats. As her breathing slowed, she noted a bee crawling along a blade of grass above her head. She counted its stripes, amazed to see them juxtaposed with the stripes of sky. The bee’s were a warning, the sky’s a promise she could not yet fathom, and for a moment everything seemed connected, aching beauty and imminent danger, the fragility of the bee and the scalded roof of her mouth, the transcendent savour of [the stolen loaf of freshly baked] bread and the fact that she was literally lying in a ditch.

From ‘Tess of the Road’
by Rachel Hartman

I love this passage, in which the protagonist of Rachel Hartman’s novel, Tess, feels utterly present in a single moment of her life: feels herself watching the moment as it unfolds. Tess’s experience of this moment, her sense of being present in it, is what a meditation teacher might call an experience of mindfulness. And yet the description is beautiful rather than didactic, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Stripes in the sky (1)

Hartman’s words are, I think, a description of the practice of mindfulness at its best. Mindfulness, to me, is not about mantras or breathing or (heaven forbid!) colouring-in books. Instead, and far more simply, it is about slowing down, about looking around, about noticing the world around you. It is, most of all, about seeing.

Because the practice of mindfulness — this kind of mindfulness, anyway, which to me is the only kind that makes any practical or spiritual sense at all — is about stepping outside, into the living, breathing world, the one that exists beyond walls and ceilings and computers and cars. It’s about looking and seeing. And about being grateful for what you see.

Stripes in the sky (2)

This year has been a strange, uneasy year for me: a year of trying to make a living from freelancing, and then trying to readjust to a salaried living, working regular hours, meeting KPIs and targets. I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned throughout the year, and grateful most of all that I was able to seek out other opportunities when freelancing alone wasn’t enough to sustain me.

Still, at times this year, when things got hard, I felt myself becoming frighteningly disconnected from the things that usually matter most to me: those still, small moments like the one Hartman describes, those moments when you stop and breathe the world in, exactly as it. Call it fear that stole those moments away from me; call it loss; call it depression; call it change. Whatever it was, it shocked me. I felt that I had stepped away from the world, and I didn’t know how to step back in.

And yet here I am now, months down the track, and I’m still here, still breathing. I’m stepping back in.

Say it loud, say it true

Other people’s words about … writing

Dan sits at his desk [to write his book] and closes the door to the hall, to the world. Winter unfolds around the cottage, June to July, and time flutters to the ground like pages. Too few pages. Never enough.

From ‘The Breeding Season’
by Amanda Niehaus

A few weeks ago, right at the end of my first week in my new job, I spent a weekend with a group of women who are writers and artists, some of whom I’d known for many years, a couple of whom I’d never met before. We walked along the beach, and we talked, and we laughed, and we ate, and we drank gin and tonic. And then we parted ways again, some of us driving back along the winding coastal roads towards the city to a life made entirely of writing and drawing, some of us driving back to a life made partly of writing and partly of child-rearing or paid work outside of the home.

Lunch break view (1): Climbing the mast

The woman who had organised the weekend had planned it, loosely, as a writers’ retreat, and indeed some of the women — a couple of whom had strict deadlines to meet with their publishers — did write during the weekend. The rest of us sat outside around a table on the sun-drenched balcony, sharing stories of our writing: our latest work in progress, recent reviews, launches we’d attended, talks we’d given, and so on.

I say we and us, but the first-person pronoun sits queasily with me, because I haven’t published anything for ten years, and because I’ve been through periods in recent years where I’ve consciously stopped writing altogether and tried to move on to other things in my life. This year, during the early months of my freelance life, I started writing again, but the process has continued to feel tentative, precarious (that word again!), and filled with doubt and fear.

Lunch break view (2): Red and blue

And so I felt a little like an intruder at that sun-splashed table on the balcony overlooking the sea. Sure, I have stories to tell about writing and about the books I’ve written, but they’re stories anchored in the past, not the present. Mostly, then, I stayed silent, without contributing when the talk turned back to writing. I listened to the things my companions were discussing, the things they said they thought about as they wrote. And as I listened, I reflected — as I have so many times over the last year or two — that what stops me from writing these days (or, more accurately, what stops me from completing any of the writing I start these days) isn’t so much a lack of confidence in my writing as it is a lack of confidence in my self: who I am, where I fit in the world. What I experience. What I think. What I stand for. What I believe. What I feel.

What I want to say.

Lunch break view (3): Seagull companion

For me, writing has always been about having a voice. In essence, it’s about having a conversation on the page with my readers. And so, implicitly, it’s about feeling that I have the right to express myself, to speak up, to tell a story: my story. It makes sense, then, that in the last few years, as I’ve found it increasingly hard to talk aloud — in conversation, I mean, to family, to friends, to peers, to colleagues — about the way I experience the world, my world, I have also found it increasingly hard to write.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever write or publish another book again in my life, and I understand that, in the scheme of things, whether I do or not is probably neither here nor there. But I do know that in order to write again, I will have to learn to believe in my voice once more, and to be able to listen to myself somehow, and to manage to see myself not as an intruder but as someone who belongs in this world. Until I can do these things, I will keep letting those pages of mine — the actual pages and the metaphorical ones, the pages of time, the pages of my life — flutter, like Dan’s in the passage I’ve quoted above, to the ground.

Weekend view: under the arch

Sometimes when I write posts like this on my blog, they feel self-indulgent, self-referential, self-absorbed. And perhaps my posts are all of these things. But perhaps, too, there’s a reader out there somewhere, reading this post, who has felt (some of) the things I’m writing about today, and who hears her voice reflected back to her as she reads. I want you to know, reader out there, that you are not alone in this world. Your voice matters. Your short life matters. You matter.

So go on, say what you have to say: and say it loud, say it true. This world, this life, belongs to you, too.